There is a moment in The Holdovers—a quiet miracle of a film from director Alexander Payne and writer David Hemingson, a TV scribe making his movie debut—where cantankerous Ancient Civilizations teacher Paul Hunham (Payne’s Sideways co-conspirator Paul Giamatti) and his gangly, chaotic student charge Angus (first-timer Dominic Sessa) run into an old Harvard classmate of Paul’s while wandering the streets of Boston.
THE HOLDOVERS ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Rather than admit the truth—after failing to graduate college, the 50-something Paul took an adjunct position at his old boarding school and has been there ever since—he and Angus concoct an impressive CV: he’s an esteemed professor with many prestigious international postings, and even has a book coming out about the Byzantine culture’s use of cameras obscura. What’s the name of it again?
“Magic and Light in the Ancient World,” mutters Paul, trying to keep up.
That may also be the perfect subtitle for Payne’s movie. The Holdovers catches the curious magic and peculiar humor that can occur when people sporting different shades of sadness bang up against each other in strange and unforgiving places, like the echoing hallways of an all but abandoned school. The textured and subdued light captured by Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld (he also shot this year’s Jennifer Lawrence sex comedy No Hard Feelings), recalls both the lost afternoons of pre-Watergate America and the cherished ‘70s films of the director Hal Ashby.
As for the ancient part, the nervous, snow-swept solemnity of Vietnam-era New England is so powerfully evoked by Payne and his crackerjack production team that it feels at once a million years ago and so close you can touch it with your fingertips—which are all but frostbitten because some bully kid stole one of your mittens.
The setup is every high school junior’s nightmare. When his mother and stepfather abandon him, oft-reprimanded troublemaker Angus is forced to spend Christmas break of 1970 with his boarding school’s resident ogre—the odd-smelling and sweaty Mr. Hunham, whose pop-eyed visage resembles a cubist Santa drained of joy. Keeping them fed is Mary Pope (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s kitchen supervisor, who is blanketed in a fog of grief after losing her only son Curtis in the war, a fate unlikely to befall the privileged charges she helps nourish.
The three actors enrich each other’s performances in a manner that is at once moving and wholly unexpected.
Walking the line between basic wise ass and actual wise person, Sessa—who at the time of his casting was a drama-class obsessed senior at Deerfield Academy, one of several New England schools in which The Holdovers was filmed—has a commanding, yet graceful screen presence. Unforgettable in 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name, Randolph delivers a master class in portraying grief: rather than wallowing in sadness, she is always reaching for a joy that isn’t there. None of these characters ask for sympathy, but command it nonetheless.
Then there is Giamatti, at once at his boldest and most subtle, who plays a Jim Beam-gulping Quasimodo-like ruler of the roost in a manner both imperious and defeated. His character gains thrilling new colors and a terrifying chutzpah as the film continues. When he starts hurling insults towards the end (he calls one officious functionary “penis cancer in human form”), it has a similar catharsis of an action hero laying waste to a room full of goons.
Not unlike the purloined Santa snow globe that ends up playing a central role in the story, The Holdovers’ cozy and winter wonderland presentation hides a potential to wreak almost lethal devastation. Similar to Payne’s greatest triumphs—2004’s Sideways, 2011’s The Descendants, 2013’s Nebraska—the movie is so funny that you almost lose sight of the fact that it is one of the most acute representations of how sadness functions in everyday life that you are ever likely to witness.
When it’s over, the chill it leaves in your spine is destined to last nearly as long as the smile on your face.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.